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Through adversity, Holtby proves worth to Capitals

by Corey Masisak

WASHINGTON -- Giving up an unexpected amount of goals early in a player's first full NHL season would be considered a fair amount of adversity for most 23-year-old goaltenders. 

Not many who fit that description have gone from playing in the minors to being a team's No. 1 goaltender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while their fiancee was about to give birth to their first child, though.

Braden Holtby had already earned plaudits for his mental approach before he helped carry the Washington Capitals to within one victory of a place in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Playing in 14 NHL postseason games, including seven straight one-goal affairs in the first round, solidified Holtby's place in the organization and probably provided general manager George McPhee some nice reassurance on the decision to not try harder to retain restricted free agent Semyon Varlamov before the start of the 2011-12 season.

So when Holtby's last line of defense sprouted leaks in the first two weeks of the 2012-13 season, he didn't panic.

"I didn't really know what to expect. I knew we struggled in Hershey [of the American Hockey League] at first in the same way -- trying to adapt to everything," Holtby told "That I expected a little bit, but obviously not the the extent that everything seemed to just go in. I knew it was going to come around. It wasn't like [backup goalie Michal Neuvirth and I] were letting in goals that should be stopped no matter what. It was goals that we thought we played well and they just went in. That aspect kind of kept us sane, I guess."

The day after Holtby helped the Capitals win Game 6 of the second round against the New York Rangers in May, his fiancee gave birth to Benjamin Hunter Holtby. Two days later, the new father stopped 29 of 31 shots, but the Capitals were eliminated in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden -- in yet another one-goal decision. 

Holtby's hockey life had changed. He was a breakout star for the Capitals, and had become the latest young goaltender to stake his claim to the No. 1 spot in Washington. 

His life away from the rink had also obviously changed. The summer brought new challenges.

"We stuck around for about a month after [the season] in DC, just waiting for Ben's passport to come through," Holtby said. "That was nice to relax a bit. We went home [to Saskatchewan], and I had a lot of yard work to do at my house that kept us busy.

"It changes life a lot, obviously, but it is definitely all for the better. It makes you be better organized, and you have more of a schedule to follow, but it is really nice that after practice you're excited to get home and that's usually the best part of the day is getting home and playing with him."

When Holtby gave up 18 goals in his first four starts to start the 2012-13 season -- including six against Tampa Bay on opening night and six to Pittsburgh on Feb. 3 -- the season was clearly not going where he wanted.

After the dramatic playoff run, Holtby waited eight months for a chance to build off it and settle in for the Capitals.

That didn't happen right away, but his son did provide a welcome distraction.

"Obviously, it was still frustrating," Holtby said. "Going home [to Ben] didn't take it all away. I definitely didn't dwell on it as much though. Sometimes you're not even thinking about it. You're thinking about the important stuff. It was true in some aspects, but it was still definitely frustrating."

Just when it seemed like Neuvirth might reclaim the top spot in the pecking order from Holtby, the Czech goalie let in a soft goal in back-to-back starts, the second being a rematch against Pittsburgh, and coach Adam Oates yanked Neuvirth early against the Penguins.

"It is game by game, keep working on the mental part, especially to keep getting better. That's the hardest part is the consistency, not only through one year but through your whole career."
-- Braden Holtby on living up to expectations of his new deal with the Caps

Holtby finished that game, tossed a shutout against the Florida Panthers in the next outing and has just kept playing. He has started in seven straight contests and will make it eight in a row Wednesday night in a meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center in NBCSN's Wednesday Night Rivalry.

When other young goaltenders may have freaked out or tried to overcompensate for the struggles, Holtby kept an even-keel demeanor, whether it was on the ice or with the media or in the dressing room. 

Make no mistake, Holtby is a fiery goaltender, but he's worked quite a bit on the mental aspect of his position. No big changes -- just confidence in the process working itself out.

"It was a little more video, but that was just to assure us that we were doing the right things," Holtby said. "You keep going back and thinking there must be something to do different and then for the majority there wasn't. That was almost more frustrating. You feel like you're doing the right things and it wasn't paying off. That's hockey."

Added Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior: "We've had no real anything broken that we weren't happy with. There's a few things that we've had to adapt to what Adam wants versus previous coaches. Braden has just gained momentum as the team improved [its] play in front of him. I think he feels good, but I wasn't overly concerned."

Holtby was perfect again Tuesday night, turning aside 33 shots in a 3-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes. It was the fifth win during this stretch of seven Holtby starts.

Given that it is a short season, those early rough outings might leave a mark on his goals-against average for the remainder of the season, but Holtby's save percentage is already up to .905 and the statistics from the past couple of weeks are impressive. 

Holtby has allowed 14 goals in his seven-start run, and has a .936 save percentage. He's at .955 in the past four contests, and that includes the two losses -- to the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils -- during his recent run.

"I don't require every goalie that we have to play the same way," Prior said. "Braden has qualities that  somebody else might not have. Michal has qualities that Braden doesn't have. We play with what works for the goaltender and try to correct what is not working, and I think he's played really well all year. He got the opportunity because Michal tripped himself up  by playing a situation poorly in the Pittsburgh game and Braden has stepped in and had a chance to win some games and take the ball here."

While Holtby's play on the ice has improved just as the Capitals have started to climb back to the fringes of Stanley Cup Playoff contention after a 2-8-1 start, he is finally settling into life as a Northern Virginia resident. 

Despite dealing with a number of challenges early on in his NHL career, Braden Holtby has proven to be No. 1 material for the Washington Capitals. (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI)

Holtby said he's had seven or eight address in the past four seasons, shuffling between Hershey and Arlington, Va., and staying in different temporary housing with each recall or demotion.

Everything has fallen into place now. He moved his family into an apartment in Arlington, and plans on being there for a while.

"I don't feel like moving again anytime soon," Holtby said. "It has been a little hectic, trying to get a place and everything. Usually you have a couple of weeks of camp to settle in, so that's been different trying to deal with that during the year. One thing that people sometimes overlook is how much you bounce around when you get sent down and called up and that can take a toll. You never really have a place you can call home. 

"That part will definitely be nice for my family. Our parents -- it will be nice for them to definitely know I'm here. It seemed like every time they came to visit I would get called up or sent down."

He signed a two-year, $3.7 million contract extension Monday. The deal provides financial stability and erases any thought of a distraction as he would have approached restricted free agency in July. 

When asked if he was getting ready to buy something big after the contract, he replied, "Probably just more diapers."

"I'm going to try not to change anything," Holtby said. "It is nice that is out of the way, but that's outside the rink. Inside the rink, it is the same thing. It is game by game, keep working on the mental part, especially to keep getting better. That's the hardest part is the consistency, not only through one year but through your whole career."

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